Opinion: Why California should vote for GMO food labeling
By U.S. Organic Consumers Association national director Ronnie Cummins
Europe’s organic foods market is second in sales only to North America’s. Consumer awareness is creating steady demand, major supermarket chain sales are making it easier for consumers to buy organic, and strict enforcement of E.U. organic labeling laws – including the labeling of all genetically modified (GMO) ingredients – has cultivated a strong, growing base of knowledgeable and trusting consumers.
A new agreement between the E.U. and the U.S. – the E.U.-U.S. Organics Equivalency Agreement, effective Jun. 1 – makes it simpler and less costly to export organic produce to European countries.
Global sales of organic food have risen steadily this past decade, from US$17.9 billion in 2000 to US$54.9 billion in 2009. The European market accounted for 48% (US$26 billion) of the total slipping to second place behind North America (48.1%) after the financial downturn of 2008. There are 27 countries in the E.U., all of which represent potential markets for U.S. growers of organic produce.
Germany is the largest market for organic products in Europe and also one of its largest organic producers. In spite of this fact, in 2009-2010 Germany imported 2% – 95% percent of its organic products, depending on the category, and all were products that could have been produced in-country, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).
Sales of organics through conventional supermarkets will continue to drive the growth of Europe’s organic market. In most European countries, conventional supermarket chains have a share of more than 50% of the organic market. Because these retail chains have greater resources, they’re able to create more awareness through promotions and offer a broad selection of organic products, which contributes to the overall growth of Europe’s market. Fruits and vegetables are typical entry points for consumers buying organic products.
European shoppers prepared to pay
The majority of consumers will pay a premium of anywhere from 10% – 30% for organic products, and are more willing to pay a premium for organic plant products than for organically produced animal products, according to The Organic Market in Europe, a report by the Swiss Import Promotion Programme.
Higher prices have not discouraged consumers. Consumer interest in organic foods continues to grow, driven by a number of factors, including growing concern about the environment, social concerns around supporting small organic farmers and buying locally produced food.
By far, however, the largest driver of consumer demand is the widely held belief that conventionally grown produce is less healthy than produce grown using organic methods. Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable – and wary – of pesticide use, the diminished nutritional value of plants grown in soil destroyed by chemical fertilizers, and increasingly, they are wary of genetically modified foods.
California GMO labeling will benefit growers
To enter the European market for organic produce U.S. growers must comply with E.U. laws. In the E.U., all genetically engineered food ingredients must be labeled. No foods containing GMOs meet the standard for organics, either in the U.S. or the E.U. Many European countries, including France, Germany, Greece, Austria and Luxembourg have banned genetically modified foods altogether. In addition to the E.U., 22 other countries require labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients.
The U.S. is the only major developed country that fails to inform consumers if the food they buy contains GMOs, despite the fact that according to polls, 90% of consumers want labeling. This could change in November, if the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, a citizens’ ballot initiative, passes on Nov 6. The initiative would require all genetically modified ingredients to be labeled, and would ban the routine industry practice of labeling or marketing foods that contain GMOs as “natural.” We believe the law will pass, and it will only be a matter of time before other states follow suit.
Under the current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) the use of GMOs is prohibited in organic production and handling – and only USDA certified organic produce meets E.U. standards.
So what’s the benefit to organic growers of a GMO labeling law? By passing a GMO labeling law in the country’s largest (by population) state, the U.S. organic industry will inspire greater confidence among E.U. regulators and consumers in the quality of its organic produce and its commitment to organic standards.
The E.U. has long recognized the potential health and safety hazards of GMOs, and has acted to protect consumers who choose to avoid genetically engineered food. A GMO labeling law in the U.S. will reassure the E.U. that products grown in our country meet the expectations of consumers who demand higher standards.